Reflections of the Isle of May (2) – Autumn

This article is the second part of an account of early visits to the Isle of May by John Swallow, a regular Isle of May Bird Observatory visitor. This reflects on his first Autumn trip in 1985 and recalls many of the sort of highlights those of us who visit in autumn enjoy…

For my third trip, and second stay on the Isle of May, I was lucky enough to join Lothian Ringing Group on the island trip from 19th to 26th October. It was certainly a week to remember.

We arrived in Crail at 2.30pm to find Jimmy was “out fishing”. but within the hour we were loaded aboard and off for the May with the now familiar sense of anticipation.  On the crossing we logged a couple of RT Divers, a Bonxie and an Arctic Skua, not a bad start. The star of the first day was a Woodcock caught in the Arnott Trap. The traps were already busy with 8 Blackbirds and a Redwing also trapped and ringed.

Woodcock from the Arnott Trap (image: John Swallow)

Trap rounds on Sunday were a little underwhelming with just 4 thrushes but then things really began to pick up. On Monday overcast conditions and fog over at Bass Rock welcomed a trickle of blackbirds and a brambling too. Then on a walk past “the cottages”  a Red-breasted Flycatcher put in an appearance, it was relocated by Gordon down by Burnett’s Leap and was trapped in a hastily erected mist net.

Mike Harris then turned up a nice Dotterel down on the Maiden and we duly trotted down there and saw the bird. More Brambling headed over calling, a few Blackcaps were in the traps and a Short-eared Owl was seen. On returning to the Low Light Stan was proudly holding the bird with Nosh and Mike Martin offering their thoughts on ageing. Not sure what to do if I found an owl in a heligoland if it flew towards me I rather naively asked Stan what I should do, I’ll never forget what he said and it wasn’t make sure it’s in ringers grip!

Red-breasted Flycatcher caught at Burnett’s Leap

Tuesday morning found the island clothed in a thick fog with visibility down to less than 200m. Robins could be heard “ticking” all around with many thrushes and a few Brambling, one trapped and ringed. The fog lifted slightly mid morning but we knew we were in for a good day and 46 birds were ringed including a Redwing, 6 robin, 2 Goldcrest and a Common Redstart.

However, the best bird was a phyllosc trapped at 1pm which as it was extracted made a curious chacking sound. It certainly wasn’t a normal chiffy or tristis type, the face was striking with a clear eye-line, a well defined supercilium which was buff behind the eye and buff undertail coverts too. Stan checked the bird, we had the islands first (and to date only?) Dusky Warbler! More birds continued to pour in with 40 Brambling as the wind changed to east and then south-east as the mist lifted again.

After all the happenings of Tuesday Stan suggested an “early start” for Wednesday, he didn’t have to ask twice. Out early with the wind now set south-east we worked the heligolands and in sheer numbers terms this was the biggest day I have witnessed. Literally thousands of thrushes were arriving, calling as they tumbled down from the sky. We estimated 15,000 throughout the day with a supporting cast of 400+ Brambling and 3 Black Redstarts too. We ringed 484 Blackbird (I ringed 160!), 12 Redwing, 9 Song Thrush, 2 Fieldfare and a Ring Ouzel. Passerines ringed included 3 Starling,  6 Blackcap, 10 Goldcrest, 3 Chiffchaff, 2 Robin and 4 Brambling. Plus singles of Woodcock, a Sparrowhawk making a very healthy ringing total of 540. Quite a day.

Ring Ouzel amongst thousands of other arriving thrushes (Image: John Swallow)

After a clear night and wind now in the south-west thrush numbers abated somewhat but Tree Pipit was a nice addition on Thursday, with  45 Brambling and a Black Redstart still around plus a couple of Yellowhammer and another Short-eared Owl. Not surprisingly the daily ringing totals dropped to 96 and then 39 on Friday. Sea watching produced a few Sooty and Manx Shearwaters with Arctic and Great Skua too.

Leaving the island we added Little Auk on the crossing to make my weekly total a nice round 50 species. It was my second visit and I had ringed 331 birds (thanks Stan!) and many thanks to everyone in the Low Light.  The grub was great thanks to Stan and Sue’s pre-trip planning and the evenings were filled with many stories as the Two Good Ladies looked down on a happy crew. After lights out we fell asleep happy to the sound of the island mice munching our mars bars (other chocolate bars are available).

Short-eared Owl in the hand (Image: John Swallow)

Attendees: Lothian RG – Stan and Sue da Prato, Gordon Anderson, Ian Fullerton, John Swallow and Tay RG – Norman Atkinson, Mike Martin, John Johnston

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